Teaching anatomy

Last week I was working on the cyrostat and managed to cut my index finger with the blade: a clean cut diagonally through the skin. It bled profusely, of course, and I ended up getting bandaged up by my professor, who told me her own story of how she was working late at the lab and cut herself so deep, it hit the bone.

There’s always this moment between the implictness of the pristine barrier between our bodies and the world and the sudden shock of its breach. It happens so quickly, it surprises you so much. How small things can make you bleed quite this much; how the sharpness of objects isn’t perceived as such until it hurts us. The angle defines the injury.

Imagine seeing white bone peeking through the curtains of your parted flesh. A red border; folds of muscle. The surprise of the interior of your body laid bare. I was reading about Vesalius yesterday, about the skeleton he prepared in 1543 which is still housed in Basel, after so many years. I am trying to think of him doing this, standing in one of the anatomical theatres of that time, in front of an audience of 200 people. The students and their eager faces, some with the nausea of terror in their stomach, some with that of ambition churning inside of them. Their long-gone faces are surely only the reflections of the faces I am going to see today. Some things are preserved across time; their hunger and their fear is made immortal. The rooms in the anatomical buildings are nothing like the pantheon I imagine those past dissections have been in (raised cupola, paneled walls, soft and dim, dustmotes dancing in the light of a past era), but some facts remain. The unopened body and the first cut, the unknown. Maybe not all of us are aware of the footsteps we walk in; upon thinking about it, most of us aren’t. We don’t realise the long way we have come from Ancient Greece through the Middle Ages and then on a slope towards the present. Galen and his animals; the screaming apes, the bleeding pigs who could never hope to look up to the stars. The rete mirabile.

To put oneself in the mindset of the past is a hard thing to do. We are tought this implicit knowledge and internalise it without realising the hard work that has gone into building it. We should have moments of appreciation for that, a time to take stock and realise what place we hold in these generations of physicians who have taken this path. Our reasons are many, but we are still a part of something bigger than ourselves.